Thursday 1 May 2014

Bluebells in Osterley Park

If you go down in the woods today you're sure of a big surprise ... 

... cos all the bluebells are bluebelling ... and it's totally epic!

Yesterday morning, in the glorious sunshine, Maxi and I set out with some of our chums in search of a bluebell wood. We thought we'd check out Osterley Park as they were running an official guided tour of their bluebells later in the day - at a time that unfortunately didn't work for any of us.

And we weren't disappointed. We found loads of beautiful bluebells all over the place, their sweet perfume mixing with that of the hawthorne and the freshly cut grass on the lawns to create a scent that was the very essence of English springtime.

Did you know that we have more bluebells in Britain than anywhere else in the world? That's proper bluebells, or Hyacinthoides non-scripta, to give them their la-di-da botanical name. They only grow in North Western Europe, and here in Britain we have about half of the worldwide population of these little beauties. 

Please don't confuse them with their ill-mannered cousins, the Spanish bluebells. These larger, stronger impostors have no smell, and threaten the survival of our delicate native bells through hybridisation. 

You can tell a proper British bluebell by its pollen, which is creamy white in colour. All these other interloper bluebells have green or blue pollen. A true British bluebell can also be distinguished by its strong, sweet, heavenly fragrance. 

They are an indicator species used to evaluate whether or not a woodland can be classified as ancient. They love to grow in deciduous forests, where their bulbs give them a competitive advantage over rivals, such as the dandelion and cow parsley. With the nutrients that the bulbs contain they are able to germinate in colder conditions, and, hence to flower ahead of the others, taking advantage of the sunlight before the leaf canopy closes over.  One concern for their survival is that climate change will allow these rivals to germinate earlier in the year, robbing the bluebells of their early-start advantage. For the past 50 years the botanists at Kew have been making a note of when their first bluebell opens. This date can vary by several weeks, depending on how cold the previous winter has been. They think that the average first opening dates have advanced by as much as two weeks over the course of the past 30 years. Spring would appear to be getting earlier and earlier.

They're protected these days under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which prohibits landowners from removing wild bluebells from their land to sell, or anyone else from randomly digging them up when they're wandering around in the countryside. Bluebell bulbs may only be traded by those who have a special licence allowing them to do so.

I'm all for conserving them. They are the quintessential British flower. Moreover, they're greatly favoured by the fairy folk. According to old folklore the ringing of the bluebells is a means by which the little folk can be summoned, but woe betide any mere mortal who hears the bluebells ring, for they will surely be dead within a year. 

If you go down in the woods today you better not go alone
It's lovely down in the woods today but safer to stay at home ...

In the olden days people were scared of walking through the bluebells, believing that they were sewn together with fairy enchantment, kind of like a magical mine field, where anything could happen if you stood on a trigger point.

Maybe there was some point to all this folklore in that the lovely bluebells contain toxic glycosides, which are poisonous to humans. Lots of folk have felt very poorly when they've confused their bluebell bulbs for wild garlic down the ages, and even cows, dogs and horses have suffered digestive problems after having a munch on bluebell leaves. Their sap can trigger contact dermatitis, so maybe there was a good reason why people used to believe it was unlucky to pick the wild bluebells that grew in the woods. They must have felt pretty unlucky when their hands turned red and started to itch like mad before they'd even got home with their posy. And, in an earlier age, it's easy to see how the little folk might just have got the blame ... .

Down the years, however, some of the braver souls were able to get over their fear of the fairies and put bluebell sap to good use. Apart from being highly toxic, it's also very sticky. As a result archers have been using it to stick feathers on their arrows since the Bronze Age. The Elizabethans used it to make a glue for binding the pages of their books into the spines. It was particularly good in this context as all the poison kept the insects at bay that might otherwise have munched their way through the parchment - although it probably wasn't a good idea to lick your finger too often as you turned the pages way back then. The Elizabethans also crushed bluebell bulbs to make starch for their very grand ruffs and collars and sleeves. 

If you'd like to go and check out a bluebell wood over the bank holiday weekend the nice people at the Woodland Trust have put together a search engine that can find all the bluebell woods in your area. You just have to type in your postcode. You can find it here: Find a bluebell wood near you.

And, now, I think the last word on the subject should go to Emily Brontë:

The Bluebell is the sweetest flower
That waves in summer air;
Its blossoms have the mightiest power
To soothe my spirit's care.

Just remember not to linger too long or the fairy folk might get you!

Bonny x


  1. What a fascinating post about these charming Blue Bells. I truly enjoyed reading all about them and seeing your lovely photos.

  2. Thank you, Ida. So glad you enjoyed it. Have a great weekend, Bonny

  3. Beautiful - cows are cute! :D

    1. Thank you. These cows were stunners: beautiful Charolais herd. Have a great weekend, Bonny

  4. Beautiful find... blue magic sweetness!

  5. Thanks Barbara. Glad you liked them. All the best, Bonny

  6. Oh how I enjoyed your bluebells Bonny,
    I've not lived in the UK for many years and have missed spring so much. But now we're back after 24 years travelling and I'm loving it!
    Thanks for all the wonderful facts and fabulous photos. I'm away now to see if I have a bluebell wood nearby.
    Have a great weekend. It's my first visit to Friday Finds and your blog by the way a ;D

  7. Thank you, Neesie. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. How lovely to rediscover the bluebells after 24 years. I hope you find a super bluebell wood,and that we have some splendid spring sunshine for you to enjoy them. Have a lovely weekend, Bonny

  8. your images... the countryside... so very beautiful.

    1. Thank you, Kim. Have a lovely weekend. Bonny

  9. I always enjoy learning about new places. Thanks so much for not only sharing your photos but also the story behind them. I have a dream of visiting the English countryside, and your photos will keep me company as I dream. Beautiful!

    1. Thanks, Donna. I hope you make it over sometime soon. All the best, Bonny

  10. Glad you enjoyed it, Maribeth. And thanks for stopping by. Bonny

  11. Gorgeous photos of the beautiful bluebells !

  12. Thanks, Caz. All the best, Bonny